NEW YORK – American Airlines and US Airways are one step closer to a potential merger. The companies said Friday they have started confidential merger talks. But a deal is still far from reality.

“It does not mean we are merging — it simply means we have agreed to work together to discuss and analyze a potential merger,” US Airways CEO Doug Parker said in a letter to employees Friday.

Such a merger would put the combined airline on par with the world’s largest — United Continental Holdings Inc. Its position as the No. 1 or No. 2 airline in the world, based on how many miles its passengers fly, would depend on how many routes antitrust regulators force the combined airline to abandon.

Many industry experts say the only way American and US Airways can compete with larger rivals is by merging their strengths. US Airways would gain American’s lucrative international routes while American’s larger hubs would be fed passengers from US Airways’ network in smaller U.S. cities.

Parker has pushed for a merger since American’s parent company, AMR Corp., entered Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection Nov. 29, 2011. American Airlines CEO Tom Horton has said his airline is weighing several options, including remaining independent or merging with one of several airlines, including US Airways Group Inc.

AMR still must work itself through the bankruptcy process. It has exclusive rights until Dec. 28 to present the court and its creditors with an exit plan. Regulators would have to sign off on any merger, and then combining operations could take years.